By Dan Clarke
As the executive chef at Southend Barns and one who has been in the business for 30 years, I often get asked the question, ‘What do you think of plant-based food?’
Over the years I have seen a lot of change in the culture and attitude towards vegetarian and plant-based food, gone are the days where some chefs would simply remove the protein, or serve a classic stuffed pepper. The plant-based revolution is here, in full swing and not going anywhere. As a chef, I love the challenge, to be pushed to strive to deliver new and creative ideas that are outside the traditional wedding day menu.
Here at Roots, we like to set trends, to evolve, to create, to inspire and to show our couples that we can create and deliver fantastic plant-based, gluten free or dairy free food with lots of wonderful choices, ingredients, and flavour combinations.
We are blessed with a kitchen garden that allows us to plant what we like. To sew a seed, watch it grow, nurture it, pick it and then plate it! From our garden, to your table – who cannot love that! I have just set out our planting season with our gardener Gemma, we are planning to grow lots of root vegetables this year. A firm favourite of mine is celeriac, it is so versatile and can be used many ways – pureed, roasted, confit and raw in salads. Herbs and lettuces will also feature heavily this year along with heritage carrots, and of course beetroot! Beetroot is a firm favourite with the team and where our name originates from, Roots.
My biggest source of plant-based inspiration comes from a very well-known chef called Yotam Ottolenghi who runs and owns the Ottolenghi chain of restaurants. The way he takes humble, simple ingredients, adds some spices, seeds, nuts, or other flavours, and combines it with a vibrant dressing, yoghurt or dip is brilliant! I love that style of food and would eat it all the time if I could.
Another great source of inspiration comes from a very well-known Indian recipe book called Dishoom. A lot of Indian food is plant-based or vegetarian so when I was given this book, I could feel the creative juices flowing and my mind was racing with ideas for our menu. By combining my own repertoire and experience with a dash of inspiration from Ottolenghi and voila – we have an exciting and diverse plant-based menu to delight our couples and their guests.
One of our most popular vegan options has to be our Butternut Gnocchi with Miso, Mushrooms, Spinach, Charred Tenderstem and Sesame. This dish was inspired by Ottolenghi who do a swede gnocchi. It is such a wonderful dish, full of flavour and texture, and loved by everyone that tries it.
Plant-based desserts have been more of a challenge but a very exciting one, and with my experience as a pastry chef, it is a challenge I gladly accepted!
With plant-based ingredients becoming more readily available and very good in terms of the quality, the difficult part of making vegan desserts truly exceptional is the execution – adapting cooking techniques to make it as close as possible to a pudding that has non plant-based ingredients in it. One example of this is our Sticky Toffee Pudding, which we can now make plant-based. It has been a real challenge and taken many attempts, lots of notes, lots of trials and about 9 months to get it right! We now have a pudding that is very close to the traditional version. Gooey and light with a nice flavour and texture. We serve it with plant-based toffee sauce, plant-based vanilla ice cream and passion fruit. Oh, and we can also make it gluten free!
Our Vegan Brownie is another popular choice. The texture and gooeyness of this decadent brownie is sometimes better than our usual brownie recipe. It really is great, and gluten free too.
One of the biggest questions I get asked about plant-based food (especially desserts) is what we use instead of eggs. We use a couple of items, mainly chickpea juice, with which we also make mayonnaise with and our meringues. The other is apple puree. This works well as a combiner and adds a mellow flavour which enriches many desserts.
We are dedicated and passionate about plant-based food here at Southend Barns. Feedback from our guests has been amazing with couples so thankful for the care and attention we go to with our plant-based menu, as well as the quality of the food and the variation and choice.
Photos: Elizabeth Ruby Photography